The typical cartridge bullet contains a projectile, a case, a primer and a propellant. By the 1890s cartridge manufacturers had developed wax and wooden bullets for target use and practice. Wax bullets did not use propellant as the lightweight hard paraffin wax projectile could be propelled at speeds of up to 450 feet per second with only the primer. This saved the cost of the propellant and of the lead and the rounds could be manufactured much more rapidly and safely. While still lethal if fired at a human target at close range, the wax bullets were much less prone to kill or injure an innocent bystander beyond the target. The fact that these rounds could be bought much cheaper didn't hurt either.
Wax Bullets in Magic acts
Wax bullets were soon widely available on the civilian market and by the early 1900s they were used for indoor practice and in shooting galleries. The rounds found a place as well as in staged magic acts. The famous 'Bullet Catch' trick as portrayed in the 2006 film The illusionist, was often done with the use of a wax bullet. In the performance the wax bullet firing through by a planted "volunteer" with a very real gun. The "bullet" would be caught by and then shatter a pane of glass between the shooter and the magician with the magician then miraculously couching up a lead ball that he had hidden in his mouth claiming it was the round. Waxed bullets are often still utilized today by single action 'cowboy' hobbyists and trick shooters for safety.
Below is a famous photo of two gentlemen dueling with 44 caliber black powder percussion dueling pistols loaded with wax bullets outside of Carnegie Hall. On October 28, 1909 Dr Graeme M Hammond, President of the Amateur Fencing League of America and Mr. CB Miller of Columbia University's Sports Club faced off sixty feet apart to conduct the above New York duel. They wore heavy leather aprons and fencing masks while the order to fire was given by one of the fencing instructors. The duel ended in a draw so to speak with both men 'killed' in theory yet very much alive. James Murry, a fencing instructor of great renown is standing is the middle of the duel as master of ceremonies.
- Note the bystanders in the middle of the line of fire......hey its a wax bullet duel in 1909. Can you imagine this in today's New York City?
Military and Police Use of Wax Bullets
Wax bullets were used by the military as a less expensive and safer means of basic rifle practice by the troops. The peacetime US Army, ever eager to save money, manufactured wax bullets for the Springfield rifle from the time of its adoption in 1903 through World War One. They were used for practice, for crowd control and often were the first round loaded in the rifle while on garrison guard duty. Wooden bullets were used widely in Europe in military rifles for much the same purposes.
-Dr Graeme M Hammond, geared up to take a .44 wax bullet to the dome and return fire in kind.....now that's swagger. (Note the impact welts on the facemask, a modified fencing screen)
- Mr. CB Miller of Columbia University's Sports Club, at what would be described today as a low-ready position. Note the handguard on the pistol's grip to shroud the shooter's exposed hand. The wax bullets used in 1909 were just less-than lethal.
Today the wax bullet is still used in military and police training. SNC Tech, now part of General Dynamics - Ordnance and Tactical Systems Canada Inc. of Qubec, Canada designed a special training bullet in the late 1980s that uses a wax projectile. These rounds, known as Simunitions, fire a water soluble wax-like projectile that marks its target for training purposes. Simunitions can be and are fired in force-on-force close combat training and are much safer than any projectile before save a Nerf gun. They are safe and tactically accurate and utilize the user's own personal weapon.
Much like the "duel" between Dr Hammond and Mr. Miller in 1909, gunfighters are still shooting themselves with wax bullets in training.
- The modified .44caliber blackpowder pistols used in the 1909 exhibition. Note the handguard removed on left (showing mounting bracket), and fitted in place on right for comparison. The cartridge box in the center shows the outsized precussion caps, about the size of a .22 short on the left, and wax .44 diameter balls on the right.